An admission: As I read my way through the submission queue for our literary journal, I often decide to decline a story well before its end.
It’s not that the stories are always bad. Many times the premise is interesting, and the characters as well. It may exhibit the opening tension and stakes that can pull a reader in. In fact, there may not be anything technically missing from the submission, and this proficiency is supported by the writers’ cover letters—many submitters have been published in other journals; some are contest winners or Pushcart nominees.
But for me, the stories they’ve submitted just don’t resonate.
So it’s a matter of taste, then?
Sometimes, but more often it’s something else. It’s a quality that can’t be measured or pinpointed, and I think that’s why it’s an aspect of good writing that is rarely taught in MFA programs, or writing classes, and almost never mentioned in blogs and articles on writing. Call it something ethereal. Call it alchemy. Or call it what it is, a story so advanced that it is no longer just a story, but something beyond a story—a virtual reality that transports a reader into a frame of mind vivid enough to replace actual reality. It’s a story so engrossing the reader forgets that he’s reading, a story in which the author’s voice seems not to exist. A silent story, as a writer friend once noted.
So many times stories give me the impression of a writer writing about something. It’s in the story’s tone and flow. It’s in the plot that’s been done a few thousand times before, or is based on something that’s in the news. It’s in characters filtered through the writer’s personal experience, which limits their diversity and individuality. In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.
As I read these submissions, I can visualize the writer thinking about aspects of writing as he writes. Does this scene have tension? Is it making my theme clear?
But a successful story exists independently from its author. It seems so real that readers don’t have to be schooled in the facts of the story’s world, but can, through the actions and dialogue of its characters, adapt and understand how it works. Kind of like the way we do it in real life.
Here’s an example of what appears to be decent writing, but falls short of resonating with an experienced editor:
Like hundreds of times before, Barry Jacobs watched the signals on the subway wall as the train glided under his Brooklyn neighborhood. The car rocked in rhythm with the tracks below, but the gentle swaying did little to put him at ease, even after almost ten years of traveling the L line to his office in Manhattan. This time, Madeline, the new supervisor, would be waiting for him.
“We’ll be making some changes. I’ve been working on them for a while,” she’d said. “I want to restructure how projects are assigned.”
He realized her position of newfound authority forced her to do this. She had to show the upper management she had a vision for the department’s future in order to gain their respect. He knew it was going to cause trouble for him.
This opening establishes tension and stakes, plus a hint of intrigue in Madeline’s statement about changes, which are still unspecified. Barry seems to be a sympathetic character. We are beginning to learn how he feels about his job. In terms of writing conventions this a good approach.
But here’s how an editor can read it:
The first paragraph is good. The second is also fine, although an editor may notice that Madeline’s statements are factual and don’t indicate subtext, which is the key to understanding character motivation. They are really there to provide grounding for the opening situation. It’s not a major error on the writer’s part, but this passage could do more.
In the third paragraph, though, note how the writer drops into the character’s head to ostensibly reveal both Madeline’s and Barry’s motivation. On the surface it appears to deepen the reader’s understanding of character. The character may even be thinking these things. But in fact it’s an explanation planted by the writer to help ensure the reader “gets” who these people are. It also begins to break away from that opening tension.
As an editor, I can see what’s coming next. It’s usually at this point that a less experienced writer will dive into backstory, relating how Barry came to work at his company, or how Madeline rose to lead her department, or both. And that’s the road to decline.
Jorge Luis Borges, in his “Borges and I,” broaches the idea of the writer and the person as different people. A good writer is like that; when writing she becomes someone other than the person. She becomes the writer, an alter ego who doesn’t care whether the reader loves the story. The writer cares only about the story itself, and not the recognition it might bring. That’s what editors are looking for when they read submissions—the story, not the writer. Also consider this interview with Elena Ferrante, the Italian writer whose true identity remains unknown. She not only talks about the separation of the writer and the author, she lives it.
How do you get to that place in your writing? It’s not easy. You have to internalize the conventions of creative writing so that you know them without thinking about them. That might mean writing almost daily for about 10 to 15 years. It takes that long for your brain to synthesize the conventions and possibilities of writing into something relatable to others (and, by the way, to break the terrible writing habits most of us were taught in elementary school, high school, and college—the ones that forced us to explain ourselves in every sentence). That’s when you get to stop worrying about them.
Then, every once in a while, ask yourself why you write. Is it to become well-known or make money? Or is it because you have stories that must be told? Editors are far more interested in submissions from the latter type of writer.
Every story you write is a step toward better writing. Every publication you achieve is encouragement to keep going. This I know—I’ve had dozens of stories published in literary journals, and each one was an ego boost. But looking back on most of them now, I realize they were not that good. Many don’t illustrate the qualities I’m talking about here. But some do, and I take that as a sign of progress, the promise that my writing is going to keep getting better as long as I continue to work at it. Yours is too. But you have to know where you’re trying to get to before you can go there.